How to become a better computer operator

Millions of us work with computers all day. Whether you’re a receptionist, lawyer, telemarketer or programmer, your other job title is ‘computer operator’.

And yet, many of us are really poor at operating our computer. We struggle to complete straightforward tasks, or do them inefficiently. The computer often ‘breaks’–or so it appears to us–and we don’t know how to fix it.

If we used a hammer all day, but constantly missed the nail, would we be satisfied with our work?

Geeks frequently express frustration when they’re watching the average office worker complete tasks. They bite their tongue, resisting the temptation to say “let me drive” and push their colleague’s hand off the mouse. I often give in to this urge.

Why are we such poor computer operators?

  • Our formal education in using computers was non-existent (if you’re over 40), outdated (if you’re between 20 and 40) or spotty (if you’re under 20).
  • The computer disrupted the normal flow of technology acquisition and understanding. Most other technologies–fire, cars, telephones and so forth–were first understood by parents, and then passed on to their children. The computer was often introduced to a family through the children.
  • In my observation, few companies teach employees how to use their computers well. They’ll handle training for specific programs, but they’ll otherwise assume and, importantly, only expect basic competency. The responsibility for this kind of training often gets lost or ignored between the HR and IT departments.
  • Computers are complicated, and make us feel helpless. Many of the computer experts (I’m looking at you, IT departments) take a deprecating or accusatory tone when ordinary users report an issue with their computer.
  • We are apparently unmotivated to get better at using computers.

I routinely give pointers to my family and colleagues. I explain how find and replace works, for example, or teach them some common keyboard shortcuts like CTRL + C and CTRL + V. These may sound basic to a lot of you, but I don’t think they’re commonly understood efficiencies.

However, tips and tricks aren’t going to turn the disinterested and frustrated into capable computer users. Among my peers, the most proficient computer users have a confident attitude of curiosity and discovery around their devices. This attitude is very common among developers, I think, but it’s also present in others.

A change in attitude, not tips and tricks

That attitude boils down to this question: “how can I do this task more quickly or efficiently?” That’s how they learn practices like keyboard shortcuts and coding macros for repetitive tasks. More importantly, it’s why they tend to search the web for solutions to their computer-related problems. I recently had an IT professional tell me that 80% of his job was knowing what to google.

Put another way, advanced users bend the computer to their will, instead of the other way around.This chart–I searched for but couldn’t find its original source–explains this concept tidily.

I appreciate that lots of workers don’t want to be more efficient, or don’t have the freedom, confidence or time to experiment with other ways of working. And I know that lots of people aren’t happy teaching themselves.

And yet it’s a shift in attitude like this that can ultimate eliminate a lot of rote work and drudgery from the average computer operator’s work life. I’m a little ashamed to admit this, but when I solve a particularly challenging issue on my Mac, I feel a bit like Hugh Jackman in this laughable scene from Swordfish. I may even quietly mutter “I’m in” to myself.


  1. One of my biggest frustrations is watching computer operators who have gone through training for various programs, where the training has taught them to memorize (or follow documentation) for a process, rather than broadened their understanding for how the program works in the context of the machine.

    This seems most prevalent in the >40 set, where I see trainers and learners alike have to reference materials to (for example) get started in ProgramA with File>Open, and then have to pull up an entirely separate set of documentation for ProgramB where it also begins the process with File>Open.

  2. Honestly, Darren, I think CTRL+C and +V may well be the most closely guarded secret on the planet, after the Coke and Caramilk secrets. And maybe what happened to Jimmy Hoffa. But I so rarely see people use those shortcuts and I just feel pain every time!

  3. This reminds me of one of my trainees who I asked to fill up an online form who wasn’t very comfortable with computers. I opened up a filled format on my work laptop, opened up a blank format on another system and told her to copy most of the information, with the exception of Name, Address & other personal information.
    Two minutes later when I looked she was trying to do a CTRL+C on my laptop and a CTRL+V on her system and telling the tech guys in the next cabin that it wasn’t working.

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